We invite all Bengalis who arrived in North America in 1975 or before to share their experiences and perspectives on how their local Bengali communities have evolved over the years and what they view as important issues facing them now or likely to confront them in the future. Please send your inputs to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Evolution of Bengali Communities in North America
Personal Experiences and Views of Early Settlers
Ranajit Datta (Pelham, NY)
Background: Born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Ranajit Datta moved with his parents to Calcutta in 1949. After completing his PhD inBiochemistry from Calcutta University, Ranajit came to the US in 1965 as a Fulbright Scholar to pursue a research career at the New York Institute of Neurochemistry & Drug Addiction. He has lived in Pelham, NY, for over 50 years. While his work interests changed over the years, his interest in the well-being of the Bengali community in the NY/NJ/CT area never diminished. Even though he is now 80 years old and “retired”, he continues to publish several newsletters to keep community members informed of developments in India and Bangladesh.
On Community Evolution: When I came to the US in 1965, there were only about 20 Bengali families living in the New York City area. We came to know each other quite well. We shopped at the same stores because these were the only places in the city that carried the items that we needed: Kalustyan, an Armenian-owned grocery store (for Indian spices and vegetables), Popular Fabrics (for saree-type material), and ABC Stores on Canal Street (for 220-volt appliances and electronic goods usable in India).
In 1970, we decided to organize our first Durga Puja. It was celebrated at Columbia University with great pride and enthusiasm under a new organization, named East Coast Durga Puja Association. The first president of that organization was the late Arun Ghoshal who was my professor in Calcutta. By popular demand, I was elected president the following year, and I served the association for seven years. As our puja activities became well established, we felt that a cultural association was needed to complement our religious activities. Thus began Cultural Association of Bengal (CAB), a non-religious, non-profit and non-political organization for Bengalis from both India and Bangladesh. In 1980, CAB started an annual cultural program, named Banga Sammelan (also known as North American Bengali Conference or NABC).This annual conference soon began to attract Bengali immigrants from all over North America as well as a number of Bengali artistes and visitors from India and Bangladesh. Our primary objective at that time was to showcase North America-based talents in the performing arts and to engage our children in the pursuit of the Bengali culture and heritage.
Talking about the 1965-1970 period, we used to get quite home-sick but news from India was difficult to get. We had to go to the Indian Consulate and the New York City Library to read Indian newspapers because at that time, American press carried very little news about India. When, after the 1970 election, the Pakistani military rulers started a vicious crackdown on the Bengali nationalists in the-then East Pakistan, Bengalis living in the New York area became very eager to get uncensored news from any and all sources. In 1971 the Pakistani army launched a savage military campaign against the Bengalis in East Pakistan, and the “East Bengalis” began their “war of liberation” with the help of India. The war became the central point of discussion in all Bengali households in our area, and I started going more frequently to the various libraries to collect day-old newspapers. I would then clip reports on the war, paste the clippings on 8-1/2 by 14 in. size paper, and photocopy and distribute these “newsletters” to the Bengali families. Thus began “Sangbad Bichitra”, the first Bengali newsletter ever published in the US. That was in November 1971. I was delighted to be able to report the birth of the nation of Bangladesh in my “Sangbad Bichitra” after the Pakistani army lost and the war ended on December 16, 1971. That hand-made and hand-distributed two-page Bengali newsletter evolved over the years into its current format of a 24-page, professionally published, bi-weekly news magazine with a large circulation.
The Bengali population in the New York City area began to increase slowly at first and then quite rapidly. By 1970 when we held our first Durga Puja, our population was in the 100-200 range (and the great majority of the Bengalis was from India). With the change in the American immigration laws in 1968, large numbers of Bengali professionals began to arrive in the city, mostly from India. By 1975, I think there were a couple of thousand Bengalis living in New York. Another huge wave of Bengalis, this time from Bangladesh, arrived in the mid-1990s when the American government established the “diversity visa” lottery program. I will say more about that later.
The Bengali professionals who stated arriving around 1970 did not have job offers in hand and had very limited funds with them. Finding a place to stay and securing a decent job were huge challenges for most of these Bengali engineers, scientists, pharmacists and managers. Many of them had to stay in one of several low-rent boarding houses in Manhattan. The most well-known among them were Clinton Arms and Alexandria Hotels. Clinton Arms, a 5-story building, housed 60 to 70 people who typically paid only $10/week. The accommodations were very basic but the Bengalis living there helped each other in numerous ways, and sooner or later, found jobs and moved on so their rooms got rented by other Bengalis who had just arrived. For many Bengalis, the friendships and networks that emerged from these early experiences became life-long relationships. Unfortunately some did not succeed financially and had to return home after a year or two.
Unlike the Bengalis from India who came as professionals or as close relatives of US citizens, the immigrants from Bangladesh arriving in the mid-1990s came mostly from the working classes. However, through their hard work, perseverance and networking, the Bangladeshis in the NY area have established themselves as a highly energetic and entrepreneurial ethnic group. Their number in the NY/NJ area is now quite large and the communities are very dynamic. I would guess that there are several tens of thousands of Bangladeshis now living in areas such as Jackson Heights (NY) and Paterson (NJ). The number of Bengalis from India now living in the NY/NJ/CT area is probably about 10,000 but I it is only a guess on my part.
On Current and Future Issues: I think that the Bengalis from India spend too much energy on light entertainment in the name of culture and heritage and too little time on community-oriented services and networking to achieve group success. We have built many temples but have established very few facilities along the models of Jewish community centers or Italian, Polish or Ukrainian heritage centers. Cooperation among various clubs and associations are not very strong. And only a few Bengalis from India are actively involved in owning and running businesses that create jobs and opportunities for many.
I was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and I still maintain close contact with many Bangladeshis in the NYC area. I am truly impressed by what they have achieved in twenty short years and how energetic and broad-based their communities are. Let me cite some figures. Bangladeshis in this area publish at least 16 weekly, all-Bengali newspapers, many with more than 100 pages in each issue. For example, “Thikana” is celebrating its 26th year of publication and “Bangla Patrika” is now on its 19th year. Most of these newspapers are distributed free to shoppers in the Jackson Heights/Paterson areas. True, these newspapers are usually designed in Bangladesh but the fact remains that the community benefits from the fairly current news published in them. Last but not least, you should see the huge number (and variety) of advertisements in each and every issue of these weekly newspapers! These advertisements are from many, many types of service businesses owned and operated by scores and scores of enterprising Bangladeshis. I see nothing like this among the Bengalis from India. – I will give another example of the dynamism of the Bangladeshi community. This year, there were 60 to 70 “Poila Baishakh” celebrations by the Bangladeshi organization in the area! They observe “Bhasha Dibas” with great solemnity on February 21 every year to remember the martyrs who gave their lives to secure recognition of Bengali as one of the official languages of Pakistan (when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan). Every year Bangladeshi communities all over the US and Canada also observe Tagore and Nazrul "Jayantees" with much enthusiasm.
Bengalis from India and Bangladesh can learn from each other and should work together to make all Bengali communities in America successful.
-- Edited by Debajyoti Chatterji
(Posted August 1, 2015)
If you would like to comment on this article, please email your remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Comments received from Sumit Roy on August 2:
"I like, and am in total agreement with, what you said about the Bangladeshi communities in the NY-NJ area -- active, vibrant, community-conscious. I came quite close to the NJ crowd at one time but moved away after my two anchors, Fazle Hossain and Tariq Ali left the country to settle in Bangladesh.
I would like to point out that Bangladesh itself is a young entrant in the world scene, still very much in the phase of nation-building. As such, the needs of Bangladeshis, in home or abroad, lie more in the areas of identity and cohesion -- much as a child needs to touch base with his mother every so often. These needs will be different from those of a community that has been around much longer, namely the Bengali community. Perhaps what we are seeing here is a reflection of that. But your observations, comparison and the final comment about "learn from each other" are right on the nose."
Comments received from Rahul Ray on August 1:
"I read your article with much interest. Someday some historian will seek the 'history of Bengalis' in N. America. Your article will be a very important source of information on 'early Bengalis'.
Your take on 'two Bengals' is also highly appreciated. We, Bengalis from India claim to be 'highly cultural'. And have remained true to our namesake (that also a light weight). Enterpreneurship has largely passed us by, while Bengalis from Bangladesh picked it up and have been running with it with great success. Cultural Association (CAB), founded by you some 45 years ago to foster Bengali culture and community development has unfortunately remained just a cultural front.
I will stop with an example: a few years ago we stopped at a Bangladeshi restaurant in Jamaica, NY on our way back to Boston. It was lunch time, and I was pleasantly surprised (and shocked too) to find nearly 10 Bangladeshi people wearing the color of NYPD eating lunch, speaking among themselves in Bengali and reading Bengali newspapers. I don't think there is even a single Bengali from India is in NYPD force! Those jobs are beneath us!"